When kids first arrive at Canal Days at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, there are a few things that catch their attention right away — like the ice cream booth, the big colorful bounce house and the spit and sputter of a dozen old-fashioned engines running at once.
Sure, it’s a historic site, but most who come out aren’t necessarily there for the history. And David Manthey, guardian of an 18th-century bateau, actually prefers it that way.
“The interesting thing for me is that because there are things like the gas motors, a lot of people pass right by me,” said the Mabee Farm Historic Site volunteer wearing knickers and an ascot. “They aren’t particularly interested in history. They just think machines are cool, you know? But then on the way back they stop and talk to us and suddenly realize boats are cool, and that’s history.”
Leaning on the side of his 23-foot-long bateau, a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boat derived from the French word for boat, Manthey explained how Colonial-era men used the boats to ship a ton or more of cargo along the Mohawk River westward in the days before the Erie Canal.
Typically, a crew of three men would load the barrels full of whatever they could fit — rum, wine, fabric, shoes, hats, guns and nails, among other things. A popular kicking off point was Gateway Landing in Schenectady’s historic Stockade neighborhood. From there, they would sail the boats west along the Mohawk, past the Montgomery County hamlet of Fort Hunter where Manthey stood Saturday afternoon, and then to Canajoharie. Then, he said, they would travel all the way to Rome, portage to the Oswego River system, and head west along Lake Ontario to the Niagara River.
Normally, if the river were a little higher, Manthey would take the bateau out for a few runs in the Schoharie Creek. But on Saturday, during the 30th annual Canal Days in Fort Hunter, the water was too shallow.
“The river actually would have looked more like this in the 18th century than how it normally looks because it hadn’t been improved with the canal,” he said. “In August, especially, there are points of the Mohawk River that would only have been 18 inches deep, which is why they used a shallow boat like this, because when fully laden with men and cargo, it only goes about 13 inches down.”
As much as Canal Days is a celebration of New York’s Erie Canal, it is also an opportunity for members of the local community to gather in one place and socialize.
Organizer Tricia Shaw said that when the two-day celebration first was held 30 years ago, it was a simple bake sale put on by the church for the volunteer firehouse.
Over the years, food, vendors and activities were added to the event.
“This is my 16th year overseeing the event,” she said. “The biggest thing that has changed for us is that times have changed. This festival now has to bring in outside vendors and catering companies because there are insurance issues and food safety issues, which 20, 30 years ago we didn’t have to deal with those problems, you know?”
Such regulations, of course, require the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site do more fundraising to put on the event each year. This year, it cost about $5,000 to hire bands and bring in entertainment.
On Saturday, there were classic cars, old engines, a fielding and pitching clinic with the Amsterdam Mohawks, fire trucks, a Price Chopper bounce house, Montgomery County Sheriff K9 demonstrations and activities where kids could make a bear tooth necklace, ornaments, a painted sailboat and a native sand mandala. There was a clown and plenty of summertime favorites like burgers, hot dogs, pulled pork, chicken barbecue, lemonade, fried dough and ice cream. Later that night, a Paul McCartney and Beatles tribute band put on a show for the remaining crowd.
The big attention grabbers were Don Bernaski’s old engines. If you didn’t see them shaking and bouncing off the ground, then you definitely heard them spitting water, sputtering smoke and shucking corn.
Bernaski, who lives in the town of Florida hamlet of Scotch Bush, showed off his adored collection Saturday to passersby. He had a water motor that was used on barges during the 1920s to pump water out of the bottom of boats, a pipe trencher and a corn-shucking machine from the early 1900s that spat out bare cobs into one bucket and shucked corn into another.
“I lived on a farm and I just got into it,” he said of his unusual collection. “After a while, I just started collecting ’em. It’s like potato chips, you know, you can’t stop at one.”
Canal Days is sponsored by Friends of Schoharie Crossing, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Alpin Haus, Mattice’s Service Station, Adirondack Septic, Schenectady Floor Covering, The Plaid Giraffe, Halcyon Farm Bed and Breakfast, Palatine Cheese, Whiting Enterprises, Kosiba’s Locks and individuals.
Since it’s a big anniversary, Shaw OK’d the purchase of fireworks this time around that were to go off Saturday night.
Canal Days will continue today from noon to 5 p.m.
There will be free hot dogs and cookies for anyone who shows up, historic walking tours along the Schoharie Crossing Aqueduct, Empire Lock and Lock 20, a kids craft tent and checkers, and a lecture on the industrial history of Fort Hunter as told by Fultonville historian Ryan Weitz.